A pair of Texas Rangers relievers and a familiar face in a new position with the organization paid a visit to Sherman on Wednesday night as part of the team’s month-long Winter Caravan.
Pitchers Jose LeClerc and Nick Gardewine as well as Baseball Operations Special Assistant Steve Buechele met with fans and signed autographs at the T-Mobile store after spending the afternoon in Greenville and Paris presenting grants to local athletic programs in those towns.
LeClerc ended up having his best season in his third year with the Rangers, taking over as the closer for the final two months and being named the Rangers Pitcher of the Year.
“Keep doing what I’m doing. I don’t want to change anything,” he said. “When I was a normal reliever I did my best to help the team. Same as being the closer. Not going to change anything.”
The 25-year-old right-hander went 2-3 with a 1.56 earned run average and 12 saves — in 12 opportunities — in 59 relief appearances in 2018 and posted the lowest relief opponents average among major league qualifiers (.126) and had the second-lowest relief ERA in the American League.
It was also the fourth-lowest opponent average (.1257) by a reliever in baseball history, minimum of 150 batters faced, behind Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman in 2014 (.121), California’s Andy Messersmith in 1968 (.124), and Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel in 2012 (.1256).
His ERA for the season was the third-lowest in franchise history, behind Neal Cotts (1.11) and Joe Nathan (1.39) in 2013.
In his first full season with Texas in 2017, he pitched in 47 games, covering 45.2 innings with a 2-3 record and two saves with a 3.94 ERA.
“My first year I didn’t have the confidence I could strike out that guy; I could get that out,” said LeClerc, who signed with the Rangers out of the Dominican Republic in 2010. “I worked a lot on my mechanics. I got there and competed to do the best I could.”
Gardewine is almost in the same spot that LeClerc was at this time a year ago. The right-hander did make three appearances for the Rangers during the 2018 season but spent the final month and a half on the disabled list, one two DL stints, with a forearm strain and didn’t pitch in the majors after two shutout innings against the Cleveland Indians in early May.
“I started the year up and then went back down. During the rehab I got hurt again. It snowballed from there,” Gardewine said. “It definitely motivates you to go back. It was a tough year for me mentally and physically.”
He had a 3.60 ERA and four strikeouts in those five innings.
The other part of his year was spent at the Triple-A level, where he threw 12.1 innings with 17 strikeouts and seven walks and was 2-1 with a save and a 7.30 ERA.
It was the second straight season the 25-year-old pitched in the majors and his goal in 2019 is to become a mainstay on the Rangers staff instead of going back-and-forth to the minors since being picked by Texas in the seventh round of the 2013 Draft.
“That’s definitely my goal every year. I believe I can make the team,” he said. “Every time I go in to rehab, I feel stronger coming out.”
This will be the first season in a new capacity for Buechele, who played more than 1,300 games as a third baseman across 11 seasons, including a pair of stints with the Rangers from 1985-91 and then in 1995 before retiring.
As a special assistant in the club’s baseball operations, he will assist the department with contributions at both the major and minor league level. Helping the next generation of Rangers is something Buechele is familiar with. He was a manager in the farm system from 2009-14 before moving up to be Texas’ bench coach from 2015-17 and then serving as the first-base coach last season.
“I think it entails a little bit of everything,” he said about his new role. “I’ve been at the major league level but it’s also fun to help the kids at the younger levels.”
With a change at manager this off-season from Jeff Banister to Chris Woodward, Buechele shifts to the front office to contribute across the organization.
“As a coach or as an assistant, you want to do whatever you can to help the players win, no matter what that is,” Buechele said. “I think I can do that.”